January 19, 2022

A championship ‘connection’ you might overlook


            The Bulldog Nation—almost 100,000 strong—was shivering on Saturday. Shivering from the icy winds. Shivering from the excitement of UGA, beating Alabama, 33-18, and bringing home the national championship trophy. The 41-year wait to bark with this much joy is over.

Woof, woof!

Standing before a nearly packed Sanford Stadium, Coach Kirby Smart said one word defined the difference between his 2021 team and all others. He told the red-and-black-clad crowd that the defining word was “connection.” I like that. And when Georgia whipped Michigan’s Wolverines, you didn’t see Bulldogs doing cartwheels in the Orange Bowl. Instead, the team’s connectivity and its focus lasered on the ultimate challenge, the Crimson Tide.

                As members of the 1980 championship team hoisted the 2021 flag over Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium, another thought of “connection” came to mind. There’s a common denominator in the 1980 and 2021 national championship teams. It’s a town, 210 miles south of Athens. One route is down Hwy. 15—through Herschel Walker and Loran Smith’s hometown of Wrightsville—to Baxley. At the courthouse, turn left on U.S. 341 and split the pines, 30 miles to Jesup.

                What does that Southeast Georgia community, my hometown, have to do with the Bulldogs’ winning two national championships? Plenty, if you consider how these dots from 1980 connect to 2021.

                One play in 1980 bought the Dawgs a first-class ticket to the Sugar Bowl. Can you hear Larry Munson, in Jacksonville, gasp and growl, “You gave up … I did, too?” That was after Buck Belue “was in trouble” and put the pigskin into the hands of No. 24, who outran 11 orange-and-blue Gators to the end zone. Not far behind Lindsay Scott was his coach, Vince Dooley, racing down the sideline, on his way to New Orleans.

                Without that “run, Lindsay, run” play, there’d be no 1980 championship flag flapping over Sanford Stadium. Herschel leapt into the Notre Dame Fighting Irish’s end zone, but it was Jesup-born Lindsay who raced into UGA’s history books. Many call it the greatest Bulldog play ever. We should bark our gratitude for Raymond and Johnnie Mae Scott, whose son, Lindsay, laid down his trumpet in the ninth grade and laced on a pair of Wayne County Yellow Jackets football cleats.  

Then there’s another set of Jesup parents, Buddy and Jayne Bennett, whose children are Rick, Jan, John, William and Stetson III. See where I’m headed? But first, let’s talk about Buddy, the scrambling quarterback, who led the Jesup Yellow Jackets to a 1954 state championship.

Buddy took his cleats to Deland, Florida. to play for Stetson University. After his first season, the school ditched football. Buddy sat out a year with a concussion. From Jesup, he hitchhiked to the University of South Carolina.

In Columbia, Buddy was deep on the depth chart. In his senior year—when the starting quarterback went down—Buddy came off the bench to commandeer his team to win three of its last four games and lead the Gamecocks in rushing. Sounds familiar, huh?

Buddy died in 2016, but his grandson Stetson Bennett IV proved his granddaddy’s gridiron DNA was “alive,” as he earned offensive MVP trophies in both the Orange Bowl and the national championship game. He didn’t win those games by himself, but his leadership and skills connected with his teammates.

Blackshear claims Stet IV as its own, but the superstar’s roots—just like Lindsay Scott’s—are deep in Jesup soil.

Coach Smart is right. Connection made the difference with his Number 1 team.

And I couldn’t overlook the “connection” between Jesup and the 1980 and 2021 national championship Bulldogs.

Woof, woof!